For all the grief many old timers (read: hip hop fans aged 30 and up) give so-called ‘mumble rappers’, in actuality, the only rap crime that should be punishable by banishment is a lack of personality. Subsisting by mimicry was decried well before Raekwon & Ghostface officially made it a Commandment with their aggrieved takedown on OB4CL. Sharks be damned, I’ll take a tentative flow enthralled by its own genesis over a bland succubi any day.
Alas, more than ever, hip hop has become a cliqued-up world in which the circles you travel in often matter far more than what you bring to the table. We all watched Desiigner (however briefly) reach the apex of rap fame purely by practically tricking folk into thinking he was Future (seriously, how many people did you have to tell “Panda” wasn’t, in fact, a Hendrix loosie?), all because he knew Kanye West and Pusha T.
Enter Gunna. While he’s certainly not a clone to the level of Desiigner, he’s clearly drained just about every idea he has from hanging around Young Thug. What’s more, Thug has supported his consumption at every turn, all but forcing his ally into stardom. Gunna is practically a rap remora.
To say Gunna lacks personality is being far too kind; he’s an absolute vacuum, a sleepy blackhole. Whatever light his guests (an always bafflingly impressive cast) inject into his fatigued projects, none escapes.
To be fair, he certainly didn’t create this problem; he’s merely a symptom. More and more, major rap projects boast the same dozen or so (if that) collaborators, as if the entire industry has reduced itself down to a circle jerk whose only intent is keeping one another in vogue, complete with a bunch of Top Gun-worthy highfives; ‘You can be my wingman any day, so long as you’re one of the chosen few’. It’s a hustle all too easy to keep afloat in 2020, with streaming playlists and positions all but deciding who listeners hear. Is the artist any good? So long as the music sounds decent enough in the background, it doesn’t really matter.
So, does WUNNA, Gunna’s sophomore album, do anything to up his game? Well, it’s certainly a step forward in status. The production, primarily courtesy of Wheezy (though the likes of Mike Will Made It and Tay Keith pop in), by and large, is fantastic, from the demanted carnival of “Feigning” to the blissfully futuristic, light glide of “Skybox”.
However, you can’t ignore the great injustice done. Who would have done these beats better service? Just about any rapper alive, including the aforementioned clique who nearly all appear here, from Travis Scott, to key collaborator, benefactor, and label boss (read: lifeblood) Young Thug, Lil Baby, and the newest inductee, Roddy Rich (only DaBaby is missing from the current ‘Team Predictable’ roster). Yet, here we are, with empty-headed Gunna having become the go-to feature on just about every other project that drops. Remember when that guy was 2 Chainz? Then it made sense. The guy was guaranteed to bring you listeners, and his verses were genuinely fun, either side-splitting or pure charm. Gunna as a feature seems to exist purely to pass a block of time between hooks. Does he do it adequately? No one seems to care.
Not a single word Gunna sleepily utters on WUNNA sticks – and I absolutely say that without hyperbole. Not a one. “We was in a Bentley B / flowin’ up the street / playin’ one of our songs, yeah.” Do tell us more. It’s rather telling that Gunna sharing the actual story behind the song in conversation feels identical to his ‘wordplay’: “Me and Wheezy were driving, at the red light we seen some girls in another car. … I made a song about it.” Truly spellbinding. The man is just about the rap world’s Perd Hapley, without any of the comedic value.
Should you desire to be kind, you can call the album mood music. In theory, it’s an astrology themed LP, with ‘Wunna’ representing an alter-ego, but none of that comes across. The aforementioned top-notch production work does all the heavy lifting, immediately setting a roomy scene on just about every track. What Gunna raps over them is simply white noise; he could speak every word in a made up language, the effect would be no different. If anything, it’d be preferable, as at least it’d lend him a sense of intrigue. Instead, we get the same bars one can encounter on any recent trap-adjacent project: drips, drugs, flashy cars, fortune, fame, designer brands (Dior, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent: Check) – you name it, simply expressed far less memorably than by just about any other artist.
Even his voice lacks any distinction, a hushed, fatigued monotone that could belong to anyone, with so little presence that it hardly registers over the beats. “MET Gala” takes away any need for Future to appear, as it’s essentially identical to his music. Only on “Don’t Play Around” does Gunna discover anything resembling emotional honesty, making it a slight highlight. Whenever he does hit on something vaguely original, it tends to turn out repulsive: “She told me she was thirsty, started drinkin’ my spit.” Thanks for that image, Gunna.
It’s not that a lack of lyricism or original ideas is something a rapper can’t overcome. Travis Scott has never been beloved for any particular brilliance of specificity, instead often at his best in a supporting role, even on his own records; but the man not only has vision, he knows how to dominate a conversation by sheer force of will, an act he perfected with ASTROWORLD. Gunna, alas, always sounds like he’s just about to drift off to sleep. Not only does he not control his own tracks, he doesn’t seem to have any desire to.
The music of WUNNA does, indeed, sound better than anything its renter (surely, he doesn’t properly take ownership of these beats) has released to date. But, with even the slightest peer beneath its glazed surface, all you’re left with is conceited noise. Without a doubt, this is one of the best produced hip hop albums of 2020 thus far, but those resources are completely squandered. Jeezy said it best: I’d rather listen to your instrumentals.